Designer Hedi Slimane, on the Saint Laurent runway after the Spring 2013 collection, will take over at Céline in February. (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)
Fashion critic

What does this chapter in our culture look like, aesthetically? The 1960s were represented by the anarchic, free-form, sexually unbound look of miniskirts, love beads and afros. The excess and social stratification of the 1980s were well-depicted by power suits, shoulder pads and the spherical-skirted party dress known as le pouf. And now? The question is worth asking because the fashion industry has once again welcomed the designer Hedi Slimane back into the fold, after a nearly two-year hiatus — and he has a knack for capturing the zeitgeist and commodifying it as fashion.

This weekend, Slimane was appointed artistic, creative and image director of Céline, making him responsible for the company’s womenswear, accessories and advertising, as well as a planned expansion into menswear and couture.

“Hedi Slimane’s talent and his remarkable ability to anticipate and express in a unique way the evolutions and desires of his age, will ensure a further era of exceptional growth and development for this famous maison,” read a statement from LVMH, the parent company of the Paris-based brand.

So, in this moment of female empowerment, feminism and female strength, Slimane rises. He takes control of a house founded by one woman (Céline Vipiana), re-energized by another (Phoebe Philo) and aimed at dressing a diverse range of women. Is he the designer to lead Céline in this woman-power era? Or is this a case of the fashion industry unable to see the future through the golden glow of the past?

Slimane’s value has always been in his It-ness. The soundtracks of Slimane’s shows were populated with underground bands; his runways were filled with skinny boys and scowling girls. Fashion worshiped his runway hipsters; it bowed down to his disaffected youth. More broadly, he helped us see ourselves more clearly. He made plain consumers’ infatuation with status brands and their longing for cool.

A model from Slimane’s fall 2015 collection. (Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

Slimane rose to prominence in the early 2000s as the head of Dior Homme, where he gave men a rock-star skinny silhouette, so lean and unforgiving that it helped to push a new breed of gaunt, hunched-over menswear models into the forefront. During his 2012-2016 tenure at Saint Laurent, he was based in Los Angeles and found inspiration in West Coast youth culture, from indie bands to music festival fashion. He merged that sensibility with the aesthetic legacy of the house, avoiding the part of Saint Laurent that emphasized strength and sophistication and focusing on the elements that oozed subversive, drug-addled androgyny.

Whenever Slimane left a position, the industry breathlessly awaited his return. Whenever he returned, the industry parsed his every statement, contemplated his “no comments” and overinterpreted his silences. Fashion obsessed over Slimane. No matter how many times he shunned fashion to return to photography, fashion couldn’t get enough of him.

His clothes, whether at Dior or Saint Laurent, exuded selfish nonchalance — a particular form of privilege experienced by well-off, white, indulged youth. His millennials had the luxury of brooding about their future and rebelling against the status quo because their future was assured. And if they broke the rules, a safety net would catch them before they were lost between the cracks.

[Hedi Slimane made a lot of money for Saint Laurent. But did he leave a legacy?]

One could argue that Slimane wasn’t necessarily capturing the mood of the moment: The times simply cycled around to meet him where he had always been. But the culture has changed dramatically since Slimane last headed a fashion house. Has he changed? Is he the designer that fashion needs now?

Most people will never buy a Céline product, because they are terribly expensive. A trench coat is $4,000. A blazer is $2,700. But if you have found your way into a Cos boutique or purchased anything from Everlane, you have been a beneficiary of the Céline minimalist point of view as defined by Philo, who will present her final collection in a few weeks. Philo’s work was celebrated for its willingness to eschew frippery and foolishness and focus on sophisticated lines. If the brand had a narrative, it was that these were clean, confident clothes for clearheaded, strong women.

Phoebe Philo at the CFDA fashion awards in 2011. (Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

The Céline spring 2018 collection (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV Photo For The Washington Post)

And in 2018, that seems to be the direction the wind is blowing. There is a greater emphasis on women’s power and independence rather than immature moodiness. Women are using their voices to speak their mind, not throwing boot-stomping tantrums in an emotional catharsis. The narrative has switched to body pride and diversity, and away from adolescent gangliness. Fashion’s relevance is in being able to translate these shifts into attire. Into a new code of dress.

The story has changed. Slimane is presumed to have the ability to intuit the next chapter. Maybe he does. But the vocabulary to express it is not evident in his past.